California roadshow 2007


Ryan Matthews 
Smart Energy International’s Ryan Matthews is undertaking a roadshow in California, visiting utilities across the state to find out more about their metering and customer service activities and to meet the personalities behind them. He is keeping a diary of his experiences.

Wednesday November 7: I arrived in Los Angeles after a 36+ hour journey. Fortunately my bags arrived safely, with only a few scuffs on my new grey Samsonite, but everything intact.

Thursday November 8: Not even 5 am and the hive of LA’s highways was abuzz with shiny metal behemoths. My GPS and I seemed to be having a difficult start to our relationship. After several unscheduled detours, I conceded the lady was right. I listened to her and two hours later found myself in Banning, a rather intriguing example of Americana.

I met with Chuck Thurman, operations manager, and Fred Mason from the meter reading group. The Banning municipality serves a mere 16,000 customers, and has some very interesting ideas when it came to AMR. They believe in face-to-face customer service, in knowing the wants and needs from each of their clients. As far as next generation metering goes, they are more concerned with access problems, rabid dogs and the like.

The meeting went swimmingly; we started early and I got on the road half an hour before schedule for the long trip to Anaheim, the home of Disneyland.

Meeting with Stephen Nees was a pleasure. I discovered Stephen has a strong IT background, having worked previously in the broadcasting world. Now he is more than happy to work within utilities at this exciting stage of the industry’s growth. We spoke about some of the novel programs at Anaheim and their AMI rollout. With their commercial customers (notably Disneyland) taking a large chunk out of the power supply, they are bringing in novel ways to handle the incredible load. We were then sidetracked by fishing tales and the interview continued far longer than anticipated.

Stephen was kind enough to direct me towards Downtown Disney where I could get a feel for the amusement parks. As you walk in, the sounds of happy Disney soundtracks fill the air, carried along by the wafting smell of candy-floss and caramel. I couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, pay the $90 fee to gain access to the main park, but the exposure I had was more than adequate. I could already feel the rush of teenage angst, a form of post-Disney depression. It was an interesting experience, one that gave me a deeper appreciation for the magic of Disney.

Friday November 9: Another 4 am wake-up call. City of Burbank, here I come.

I was early for Fred Fletcher, the assistant general manager at City of Burbank Water and Power, but he wasn’t long in coming, allowing us to start early. Of greatest interest during the interview were two things, the new WiFi-enabled meter reading program and the extreme amount of power being used by the surrounding movie studios – so much so that the City of Burbank built its own 400 MW station to safeguard against a drain on supply. Fred gave me a tour of the facilities and introduced me to his wife who heads up the accounts side of the utility.

Then it was a quick rush over to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to meet with Mariko Marianes.

What an imposing building! This was my first taste of one of the larger utilities, which supply energy to several million customers. LADWP left me in awe as its doors welcomed me in. It is a city within a city, something one would expect in a futuristic adaptation of a 1940s sci-fi novel.

Things work differently here, compared to those of my previous interviews. They are big and have to think big, of their millions of meters scattered across the greater Los Angeles region. First up was the installation of meters in problem areas, where meter readers fear to tread. In doing this it was realized it would be more worthy and cost-effective to roll out full AMI deployment, geared with time-of-use capabilities accessible online. Mariko’s role is in the billing and customer service side, and she identified one of their greatest challenges being the upgrading from old Cobalt-based legacy systems to a streamlined MDM system. This is in the process of overhaul, but considering the vast quantity of data to manage, it will take some time to realize results.

Next up was San Diego, the host city for Metering America 2008, and what a beautiful host city she is.

I made my way to one of the SDG&E satellite offices to meet with Ted Reguly and some of his associates. A Friday afternoon, the air was alive with the static of impatient soles rubbing against the dark-navy nylon carpeting. Ted was in a good mood too, jumping in and out of meetings, knowledge churning all around him. I asked him one question and he gave me a 20 minute answer. He covered everything that one could imagine, complete with humorous anecdotes. SDG&E are in the midst of a major rollout program, and are industry leaders in several facets of supply, distribution and customer service. I found communicating with the customer was a key part of their strategy, hosting seminars and workshops, going out into communities and letting them know about the future of their utility. It was good to meet with him, and I am grateful to have had some of his time.

Wednesday November 14: After a stint with colleagues in Austin, I arrived in San Francisco.

Thursday November 15: My first port of call was in Silicon Valley Power, more commonly known as the City of Santa Clara Municipality. I met with Larry Owens, another gentleman with a strong IT background working in the utilities industry. Being Silicon Valley, over 90 percent of the electric resources are consumed by the surrounding IT firms, mainly in the various data storage banks. With the need for near constant peak supply, the team at Silicon Valley Power has instituted a system of obtaining power from a number of resources, mainly surrounding renewable stations. Again, as with many of the previous utilities, I found a great emphasis on energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. And the purpose behind their AMI program is focused around conservation and load shedding. With such high demand, the ability to control essential and non-essential processes is of utmost importance, with a series of incentives being promoted amongst their bigger customers to watch and conserve energy.

Larry mentioned the three pilot projects they had going with regards to remote meter reading. Two of them were WiFi-enabled projects, the other used ZigBee technology. What they found was that, due to the high density of WiFi networks and peripherals, there was too much interference from other devices on the WiFi network. Added to that are the security issues associated with using WiFi. The ZigBee pilot ran without a hiccup, but further investigation needs to be done on a larger scale.

After my meeting in Silicon Valley I headed north to Sacramento to meet with SMUD (Sacramento Municipality Utility District). I immediately noticed the difference between the highways around San Francisco and Los Angeles. Add to that the scenic beauty of Northern California… it was magic!

Approaching the magnificent SMUD building, one could see immediately that it was designed to welcome you in, to make you feel a part of the community.

I met with Erik Krause, the senior demand side specialist at SMUD. We went into the history of the utility, their half million customer base and talked about their future projects. The RFP for their AMI project will be going through in December, but already they have instigated the installation of meters in problem areas. But with the cost of installation coming down and the future applications of the technology becoming greater, Erik’s team realized that a complete rollout now would be the way to move forward. From this it seems that many of the municipalities found themselves taking tentative steps about a year ago, but now see themselves rolling out customer-wide projects. Interestingly, SMUD are focusing on their residential customers first, in addition to their commercial clients. This is in contrast to many of the other utilities which have been focusing on their largest customers and access-problem customers in the initial stages.

Friday November 16: To Pacific Gas & Electric, the Northern California utility serving more than five million customers (22 million people). Located in a huge corporate building along one of the many one-way streets in downtown, my poor GPS continued to confuse herself. I think I had been ignoring her in the past few days, so I parked my vehicle and decided to go on foot.

Crossing the street, I looked up at the magnificent building before me. With green energy banners wrapped around like a Christmas present from grandma, this is a company that’s serious about conservation.

Jana Corey sent her assistant Roenna to collect me from the lobby. Another trip up to an unknown floor and immediately I was led into Jana’s office, her windows offering a fantastic view of the harbour and the bustling streets below. Jana was friendly and her colleague Paul Moreno was waiting on the speaker phone, prepared for any questions I had to offer.

With so many customers to look after, PG&E are starting things small. But, as Jana admitted, the momentum is gathering. Technology is becoming more affordable, applications more diverse, and AMI evolution is in full swing. Due to PG&E’s vast geographic coverage, the team decided to start further inland where temperature ranges are more diverse, therefore creating higher peaks at certain times of the year. There is a concerted effort to control these peaks, to educated customers on usage and the ability to monitor when there is a high demand. A series of tariff incentives will be introduced in the near future to encourage customers to conserve energy at these peak times and to curb wastage.

The drive out of the city centre was peaceful. Only a few more interviews to go, then I’m on my way home.